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Space, a place we used to go

Posted July 10, 2011, at 7:15 p.m.

“If you watch NASA backwards,” Thomas Fuchs joked on Twitter, “it’s about a space agency that has no spaceflight capability, then does low-orbit flights, then lands on moon.”

On Friday, our final shuttle, Atlantis, successfully launched from Cape Canaveral’s Kennedy Space Center. It’s the end of a journey.

It is days like this that I am struck most forcibly by our conspicuous lack of flying cars.

That was the future, they always insisted, back when television was black and white and 3-D films were novel. The future was flying cars, food capsules and little colonies on the moon where white-suited men bounced on the surface of the silent, dimpled sphere.

Our science fiction was populated with this sort of idea. It was directed upwards and outwards, set in the imagined time and place where we would have colonies on perpetually rainy Venus or plant trees on Mars. Author Ray Bradbury’s astronauts strolled into the towns of new planets with the swagger of cowboys. Space was the future, unquestionably.

But then something happened. One small step for man turned into one small 12-step program to space sobriety. We eased ourselves out of the unfamiliar. Space ceased to be somewhere you went for its own sake and became a program we praised for its externalities – satellite communications and Silly Putty and pens that wrote upside down.

The nearest star is more than four light-years away. That’s 39,900,000,000,000 kilometers – and even though kilometers are a dinky European unit, that’s impressive. Why visit? That seems like a lot of effort. What if the inhabitants were out when we arrived? By the time its light hits us, that light is four years old. What use is anything four years old?

And once you lose the desire to visit space simply because it is interesting and start going there because maybe, this time, we will come up with another useful Silly Putty, you lose the point.

Space is a place we used to go. (Or, if the Internet is to be believed, Space is a soundstage where a group of fiercely loyal liars once congregated in secret.) Space moved backwards. Maybe George Lucas was more prescient than we knew when he set the Star Wars saga “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.”

Be an astronaut? That’s become somehow antiquated, like dreaming of being a telephone operator or a vaudevillian. That’s what the future looked like before we knew what the future really looked like. The future turned out to be celebrity tabloids and magical personal screens and the continuation of old feuds, not mankind suddenly clasping hands and setting its sights for the beyond.

These days, we agree with George Kaufman. Terra firma for us, thanks. The more firma, the less terra. We have iPhones. Those are more wondrous than the lumpy, colorless moon.

Is it our modern affliction of impatience that leads us to abandon space? Can’t we just CGI that, we ask, instead of sending someone floating off in a tin can? If you can’t do it on your iPad, is it really worth doing?

“It’s not over!” we say. “The private sector will begin ferrying us to the space station in low-earth orbit. Maybe we’ll plan to visit a neighboring asteroid.”

Never mind that there is something dangerous in the thought that “we will get around to this eventually, once things improve.” The difficulty with space travel that exists only in the past and the future is that those points have a tendency to shift. Going to Mars takes time. We will go – but not this decade, said President George W. Bush. Or perhaps we will go to an asteroid near Eart h, said President Barack Obama. But not this decade either. So far, so good – so far. We keep meaning to go. But the budget may have other ideas, and the spark may flicker out again.

And perhaps that is where space belongs – to a foolishly idealistic past, to an impossibly remote future. It is long ago and far away. Here is fine. Here is plenty. Here, there are no flying cars, but what we have is good enough.

The greatest argument against space travel has always been that “we have enough problems right here.” Well, “here” is a strange word. Here is hurtling through space at thousands of kilometers per second. It is only in our minds that we aren’t moving.

And as we hurtle onward through space, on a launch pad in Florida, the pillar of fire transforms into a pillar of cloud and the Atlantis vanishes into the sky. And we look up.

I hope it’s not the last time that we do.

Petri writes the ComPost blog at washingtonpost.com/blogs/compost.

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